The politics of fast fashion

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By Frances Storey, PGDip in Sustainable Development student

Clothing…an expression of self, a protective layer, an identity. Clothing has significance to us all but at what cost? The act of wearing an outfit has become political as the issues of fast fashion concerning slave labour, waste, capitalist greed, and climate impact have been at the forefront of the news for a number of years. Fast fashion can be classified as high fashion that is sold at a low cost. The focus is profit maximization which is engineered through the creation of demand and cheap labour in sweatshops. At the epicentre of this dilemma is the disconnect across the value chain, from supplier to consumer.

Creating the desire to stay on trend

More often than not, the consumer is at the mercy of big clothing brands. If you walk past a shop and see a window display you love, it is because you are meant to. A highly skilled team of analysts and advertisers who have targeted your demographic desires and aspirations. Sigmund Freud’s nephew used his uncle’s psychological analysis and wove it into how things are marketed, picking out people’s deeper insecurities, lacks and desires. It is only natural then that we have this deep need to stay ‘in-trend’. However, keeping ‘in-trend’ is no longer a seasonal affair. Fashion brands release around sixteen collections a year; four collections per season. This trend is picking up pace in South Africa and shows little sign of slowing down. Consumer urgency is created throughout the year in combination with the pace of releases and human desire. The massive end-of-season sales show the true value of clothing and how much would have lined the pockets of the already wealthy owners.

Cheap clothes require cheap labour

Moving to the other end of the value chain are the workers. The story told by fast fashion companies looks different compared to the lived reality of the workers. Activist work has reiterated a picture that has been painted many times and should continue to be shared until the fundamental change takes place. The fast fashion industry exploits workers, often in Eastern countries. The conditions of garment workers in sweatshops fall under the category of modern-day slavery. Cheap clothes require cheap labour. Fast fashion brands release collections at a pace that does not reflect the lived reality of workers sitting behind sewing machines for 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. The conditions during these long hours are shrouded with fear. Over four hundred people have died during factory fires since 1990 with thousands more injured. Employers have abusive power that supresses workers’ rights and can lead to sexual harassment. Unions are a way to protect workers, but management often takes steps to prevent this from happening. Clothing brand HQs distance themselves from these working conditions and leave local management responsible. The determination, strength, and power of people working in these conditions should not be dismissed. The greatest change is coming from the inside with the continued defiant collective action through unions. Addressing the horrific actions of the fast fashion industry should be done in a way that shows respect for the people who are fighting battles a consumer could never imagine.

Local still expensive

Layering this issue are the complex paradoxes that South Africa is faced with. With vast unemployment, the desire to increase local produce seems non-negotiable. However, this increase in local production feeds into a capitalist narrative. The government has made considerable effort to boost local production creating incentives with around 25-30% of clothes in South Africa sourced locally. The focus is on local products meeting consumer demand on a competitive global scale. This focus seems to miss the complex cost of manufacturing clothes. Over the last couple of years, small businesses have pushed their way into the market with more sustainable and locally produced clothing. The focus is often on the environmental impact of the clothes and fair wages. However, these products remain niche and exclusive due to the high cost. The effort of these brands should also not be ignored or dismissed.

What happens to wasted fashion?

Working our way to the end of the value chain is the question of waste. Globally, every second day one garbage truck filled with wearable clothes is burnt or dumped. Every. Second. Day. Brands like H&M often choose to incinerate old stock rather than donate it out of fear that it will ruin their image or prevent customers from buying the stock at a higher price. Consequently, last year H&M had unsold stock worth more than $4 billion. Discarded clothing also leaves a chemical trail infiltrating fragile ecosystems. Natural fibres use a significant about of water with an estimated number of ten thousand litres going into making one pair of jeans. This is only a peek into the issue of a vast problem. As hopeless as this may seem, it is our lived reality. The value chain is a set of links and if one is removed, it will not work. We cannot simply remove a process in the value chain. We need to look at the collective system as well as the details and narratives. Clothing is political, so let’s engage with it.

(Artwork by Stella Hertantyo)

Working towards a regenerative fashion industry

With all these factors in mind and many more, we need to find a way to go beyond sustainability. The politics behind clothing cannot be disregarded for the latest trend. We can no longer sustain shopping habits that revolve around 16 collections of clothing a year or current working conditions where rent becomes more important than food or the amount of waste in landfills. The question needs to be how can we have a regenerative fashion industry? What if the value chain didn’t have an end and instead is looped back into the system? A number of terms have accompanied this thinking like slow fashion or the fashion revolution. These movements are encouraging as they tend to have a bigger focus on equity. Fashion activists are taking the stand against the fast fashion industry while embracing the complexities of the social and environmental issues. An encouragement around second-hand shopping comes with its own complications around access however still holds the right message. Finding ways to mend clothing or restyle clothes is important as it builds a deeper connection to the clothes in your cupboard. Not everyone has the same access to clothing; education plays an important role in embracing other people’s needs.

The role of consumers

The onus is often placed on the consumer when the battle is really against massive brands that hold significant power. It is important to be a conscious consumer. Be kind to yourself and others as you learn to navigate this space. Find ways to engage with your behaviour and build a more connected process of consuming.

One of the many ways to build a more regenerative wardrobe in through clothing swap initiatives. It offers a space for people to connect around stories and meaning regarding clothing. Finding items that are already in existence make a statement against big corporates as well as supporting grassroot organisation who are making waves of change from the ground up. These may seem like small acts but isn’t any act that brings people together pretty extraordinary? Hopefully, an event like a clothing swap will allow for a regenerative approach to fashion, identity and connection.